The First World War was called “The Great War.” Even though the Second World War surpassed it in terms of geographical scope, barbarism and the cost of human life it changed irrevocably the world — and the face of the Jewish people in Europe.
The war began with a tragic but relatively minor incident. Archduke Ferdinand, son of Emperor Franz Joseph, was heir to the Hapsburg dynasty. Along with his wife they visited the city of Sarajevo. On June 28, 1914, the Archduke and his wife were assassinated as they sat in the car of a motorcade procession by a Serbian named Gavrilo Princip.
The Austrian government saw this as an opportunity to crush Serbia, and annex it to its empire. The Serbs, who were Slavic, appealed to Russia, which saw itself as the protector of the Slavs. Staring down the mouth of the Russian bear, Austria asked Germany to join their cause. Kaiser Wilhelm had been waiting for such an opportunity. He sent an ultimatum to Russia. Russia sent messengers to its ally, France, asking it to uphold its treaty of mutual support. France complied and mobilized its army. Germany then sent an ultimatum to France demanding that it demobilize. France now turned to England and asked it to uphold its treaty with them. The English complied and mobilized its army, the British Expeditionary Force.
It was the ultimate game of chicken. However, this “game” would cost at least 12 million lives. Indeed, it would cost much more because the Second World War and the events of the rest of the century would flow out from these terrible circumstances.
It is striking that war was declared on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day that has historically been associated with Jewish tragedy and mourning.
The German army attacked across Belgium, violating its neutrality. Continuing their offensive, the Germans swept through most of Belgium and turned the corner at the Channel at a place called Ypres. At that otherwise insignificant piece of land over 400,000 soldiers would die fighting for what amounted to about 500 yards of territory. One can go there today and see graves as far as the eye can see in the military cemeteries. It gives one an appreciation of the slaughter that went on there.
The German army almost got to Paris in the first month of the war. They were stopped only when the French brought up their last defenders, buttressed by the British Expeditionary Force. Instead of a quick war it would now drag on for four incredibly bloody years. Lush countryside became moonscapes and no-man’s lands littered with mine fields and barbed wire. The casualties were horrendous. And yet more men were called up.
The Eastern Front
Even through the war was eventually won on the western front there were epic battles on the eastern front – and it was these battles that would have by far the greatest impact on the Jewish world.
In the first month of the war, when France was terrified it was about to lose the war, they appealed to – begged – Russia to mount an offensive to draw the weight of the German army off of the western front. Even though the Russians were not ready for such an assault, bravado overtook common sense. They grandly agreed.
Two enormous Russian armies marched into Prussia to do battle. The Prussians were nothing if not great warriors, brilliant strategists and efficient killers. Russia lost over 2.5 million men – killed, wounded or captured – about a week.
In any other country, losing so many men would have immediately ended the war. And, in fact, the German army, together with Austria in the south, went on the offensive to deliver the final blow. At the same time, Turkey saw this as an opportunistic moment. Before describing what happened we need to step back a moment and understand the meaning to the Jewish people of Turkey’s entrance into the war.
Turkey controlled Palestine. Had they stayed out of the war the Balfour Declaration, which we will talk about, would not have happened. However, in early 1915 Turkey saw that Russia was going to lose. They now saw a golden opportunity to take back the Crimea, the Caucuses and most of all to take revenge at its long-standing enemy. They declared war against Russia, thinking that they were going to expand their empire at the expense of the reeling Russians.
The problem is that no one really completely defeats Russia. The Russian army loses battle after battle and retreat. In pursuing them the victorious army tires itself until that greatest of all Russian generals takes over: “General” Winter. The Turks would make the same mistake that Napoleon made decades earlier and that Hitler would make decades later. They were lured deep into Russia as the harsh winter and its impossible conditions set in and decimated their soldiers.
Devastated Jewish Communities
The German army attacked and began what became known as the Russian “Great Retreat,” which was a series of devastating defeats that saw Russia lose all of Poland, a great deal of Lithuania, Estonia, the Baltic states – even into White Russia.
Jews in Poland and White Russia were uprooted. Communities that had stood for hundreds of years fell overnight. Wealthy people were given over to poverty. The middle class completely disappeared. So much of Jewish life is dependent upon the institutions of Jewish life. They were all shattered. Therefore, the generation that grew up after the First World War would grow up without the groundings to be truly Jewish, which will explain the assimilation and internal breakdown that happened afterward.
The retreating Russian army wreaked unspeakable havoc upon the Jews they encountered. Most Jews who were in villages captured by the German or Austrian army felt themselves fortunate. Part of the irony is that many Jews in the Second World War remembered how the Germans in the First World War treated them fairly. Therefore, they were psychologically unprepared for the bestiality that would befall them.
A Bloody Stalemate
The war in the east had reached a bloody stalemate. Neither side could win. It was constant slaughter. As the stalemate deepened in 1916, the Russians began to blame the Czar. There was a limit to how many times one could blame the Jews and others.
Now Germany made a fatal error. They wanted Russia out of the war in the worst way so that they could then free their army of two-and-half-million men on the eastern front and move them to the western front. In order to do so they decided to foment revolution in Russia. They identified an ardent communist living in Geneva by the name of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who would become known in history by the name Lenin. They transported him via a sealed train to St. Petersburg in Russia where he met up with other revolutionaries and created a revolution that toppled the Czar in February 1917.
The result of the revolution was not a communist government, but a provisional democratic type of government that Lenin immediately plotted to overthrow. Lenin was helped by Leon Trotsky, a Jew who was born Lev Bronstein, and a third man, Joseph Stalin. In October they succeeded and orchestrated a new revolution, taking over parts of the navy and military. One of the first things they did was execute the Czar and his family, so there would be no heirs to rally around for a new counter- counter-revolution.
There now began a civil war in Russia that would last four years, from 1917 to 1921. Whatever was left of the Jewish community from the First World War was destroyed in this civil war. Besides the devastation of war, communism was based upon atheism and had no tolerance for the Jewish religion, as well as all other religions. They even set up a Jewish section, the Yevsektsia, comprised of people of Jewish origin who saw it as their mission to destroy the Jewish religion. Rabbis and others were persecuted, jailed and even killed simply for observing Judaism.
Turkey vs. Britain
Having signed a peace treaty with the Russians, the Germans shifted their army in the east to the west. The British man in charge of the navy was Winston Churchill. He sent the British Expeditionary Force to a place called Gallipoli on the Turkish coast, hoping to gain a foothold and send his forces to the areas abandoned by the Germans and attack them from the south. However, the Turks pinned the British on the coast for nine months, eventually forcing them to evacuate whatever troops were left. Nevertheless, that action committed England to a war against Turkey. And this war would ultimately free Palestine from the Turks.
The British sent an adventurer, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, who appealed to the Bedouin tribes in the Arabian Peninsula (today Saudi Arabia) by making all sorts of promises to them. The Bedouins revolted against the Turks and pressed forward out of the Arabian Peninsula into Palestine.
Meanwhile, the Jews in Palestine during the First World War suffered terribly at the hands of the Turks. They were starved and beaten. The Turkish governor hanged Jews from the walls every day for the slightest infractions. In the first two years of the war alone, more than a quarter of the Jewish population died of hunger, disease or execution. Everything that the Zionists had hoped for was becoming unraveled. The Jews, therefore, openly sided with the British.
The Balfour Declaration
The famous and historically pivotal Balfour Declaration came about through one of those things people call coincidence, but which the Jewish people see as the hidden hand of God.
Chaim Weitzman, head of the World Zionist Congress and future first president of Israel, was a chemist. He was instrumental in solving the problem of exploding artillery shells for the British. As a result he received certain honors from the British government and was able to maintain very close relationships with people in very high offices back in England. One of those people was a man by the name of Sir Arthur Balfour, who eventually became the British Foreign Secretary.
Balfour authored a famous letter in 1917 that became the Balfour Declaration. He wrote it to Sir Nathan Rothschild, head of a major Jewish organization in England, which said that “His majesty’s government viewed with favor the establishment of a permanent Jewish home in Palestine.”
The Jews read that letter as giving them Palestine as a national Jewish home. They generally ignored the rest of the letter, which added that such a home had to be consistent with the rights of the indigenous population, etc. Nevertheless, the Balfour Declaration became the cornerstone of Jewish policy. England was going to give them Palestine and the rest of the world would follow.
The Balfour Declaration, more than anything else, put the Zionist movement on the map. The First World War destroyed Jewish Europe to a great extent, but with the Balfour Declaration it simultaneously built Jewish hopes.
Therefore, when the guns fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in 1918 – and the “war to end all wars” ended – the Jews, even though they had been destroyed in many ways, were optimistic, because a new opportunity had opened for them.